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November 16, 2012
LOGANVILLE, Ga. -- Grayson High School head football coach Mickey Conn has coached plenty of players who went on to play Division I football during his career, but none quite like Robert Nkemdiche. The 6-foot-5, 260-pound defensive end is a man-child, capable of destroying competition on both sides of the ball, and he has established himself as the clear No. 1 player in the class of 2013.
Nkemdiche has made headlines on the field with his play as well as off it, where every interview he gives or comment he makes becomes national fodder in the recruiting world. He and helped Conn lead Grayson to a state championship in 2011, and the Rams are in the mix to repeat as state champs this year -- if off-field distractions don't get in the way.
Conn is often the first person contacted whenever rumors about Nkemdiche begin to swirl, as was the case on Nov. 8, when the nation's No. 1 player backed off his verbal commitment to Clemson. But despite his place in Nkemdiche's inner-circle and experience dealing with recruiting in the past, the last few months have been challenging for the veteran coach.
"It's been an eye-opening experience," Conn said. "From the time he committed and the way people acted and behaved ... they say all these things about a 17- or 18-year-old kid that is unsure of what he wants out there in life, and everything he does is amplified."
Nkemdiche has declined interview requests of late, but when he has spoken with the media, he sounds as polished as a 10-year NFL veteran. But Conn said that despite his tremendous athletic ability, he's still having a tough time adjusting to life in the national spotlight.
"As good of a player as he is, it's new to him, and it's really burdensome," Conn said. "I know he's really stressed about where he's going to go. So from that standpoint, we just want him to really stay focused on the playoffs, and for us to focus on the playoffs right now, because that's what's most important. Come February, he's going to sign somewhere and the anticipation with everybody is at an all-time high. But for us, he's worked so hard to play high school football, and he has the chance to do something special."
Grayson's roster has seven players in the class of 2013 with Division I offers, including David Kamara and Wayne Gallman, two players who also committed to Clemson. Shortly after Nkemdiche decommitted, Kamara followed suit, opening up after taking a visit to Ole Miss. Gallman, however, reiterated Thursday that he has no plans of changing his mind.
Many presume that Nkemdiche and Kamara will eventually land at Ole Miss, where Denzel Nkemdiche, a Grayson grad and Robert's older brother, is starting as a redshirt freshman. Even with recent rumors and speculation, Conn said he believes Nkemdiche will continue to weigh his options and may not decide for months.
"That's really up to Robert and what he wants to do," Conn said. "I think that it would be best for him to wait and take his five official visits and wait until the end of January. I think that's the wise thing to do, all I can do is offer that council to him."
Conn and Grayson assistant coach Lenny Gregory (Nkemdiche's legal guardian) have been involved to varying degrees during Nkemdiche's courtship, along with his parents, Sunday and Beverly Nkemdiche. Conn played college football with Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney, and was initially criticized for his perceived role in Nkemdiche's commitment to Clemson. He said that his involvement with players and their recruiting process is dependent on the players coming to him for help.
"Robert makes his own decisions, and I want all my players to make all their own decisions," Conn said. "I have relationships with a lot of coaches at a lot of schools. I played with Dabo so we're friends, but this is about Robert and my other players making the decision that's right for them and their family. I'm going to support them in what they want to do and help lead them and guide them the best I can as their high school coach and their leader. Robert was up front with everything, but as far as that goes he makes his own decisions."
Nkemdiche's mother, Beverly, who lives in Nigeria, has publicly stated her desire for her sons to play college football together. She recently visited Robert and joined him on visits to Georgia and Ole Miss while drawing ire in some circles for her public comments. Conn said he believes Nkemdiche's parents have the right to be involved in the decision-making process, just like the parents of any other player he's coached.
"I think that parents should have input," Conn said. "It's an important decision for him, and those are the people you look to for guidance and help, and he's no different than anybody else. He needs to listen and hear what they have to say."
With so many people giving Nkemdiche advice, solicited or otherwise, Conn said he's not surprised that Nkemdiche has decided to stop speaking publicly on the matter.
"I think he's heard so many opinions that right now he's not sure who to listen to," Conn said. "I think that's why he's taken a step back from everything and tried to get his mind focused. He wanted to get a good clear mind and a good clear picture so he could really get focused on football. I think he's tired of all the criticism, but we will support Robert whatever he decides to do."
If Conn had his way, when Nkemdiche does reach a decision, the school would plan a press conference and an announcement would be made at a predetermined day and time. But as he mentioned, Conn has learned a lot during Nkemdiche's recruitment, with one of the takeaways being to expect the unexpected.
"I'd like to know in advance so we can plan that out," Conn said. "That's one of those things that we're learning. In the past it wasn't that big of a deal, but things are magnified so much with Robert; and I think Robert is learning that as well. Whenever he's ready, (but) hopefully he'll wait until signing day or until after he takes his visits and makes his decision (to announce a commitment)."
When asked if his team's star player will wait until after the team has hoisted its second straight state championship trophy to make a decision, Conn sounded just like many of college coaches and fans waiting for Nkemdiche's decision -- unsure.
"I would hope he would wait (until the season ends)," Conn said. "I think he's going to take his official visits and see what all is our there. I can't see him making a knee-jerk decision right now -- but you never know when you're dealing with high school boys."
In the meantime, with his players hopefully focused on one goal, Conn is taking a break from recruiting and doing what he does best: coaching football.
"Right now we're trying to focused on the playoffs," Conn said. "Robert isn't wanting any distractions right now and of course we're not wanting to have any distractions ... it's all about football."